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May 19, 2019

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Old Soldier’s Story - The Captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers

Later renowned for his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London: 1776-1789), in 1759 the young Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) was but recently returned to England from several years’ education in Switzerland. It was the height of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), and Britain was under threat of a French invasion. As a result, with his father, he joined the Hampshire Militia. Although supposedly enrolled for part-time local service, the Hampshires soon found themselves on full-time active duty seemingly all over England for more than two years.

When he came to write his autobiographical Memoirs of My Life and Writings (Basel: 1796), Gibbon briefly recounted his experiences while in uniform. In a way, it’s a tale likely familiar to many old soldiers. Like many other veterans, Gibbon’s account mixed pride with grumbles about the service, and he added a little commentary on the value of military service to the historian.

In the act of offering our names and receiving our commissions, as major and captain in the Hampshire regiment (June 12, 1759), we had not supposed that we should be dragged away, my father from his farm, myself from my books, and condemned, during two years and a half (May 10, 1760-December 23, 1762) to a wandering life of military servitude. But a weekly or monthly exercise of thirty thousand provincials would have left them useless and ridiculous; and after the pretence of an invasion had vanished, the popularity of Mr. Pitt gave a sanction to the illegal step of keeping them till the end of the war under arms, in constant pay and duty, and at a distance from their respective homes.

When the King's order for our embodying came down, it was too late to retreat, and too soon to repent. The South battalion of the Hampshire militia was a small independent corps of four hundred and seventy-six, officers and men, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Thomas Worsley, who, after a prolix and passionate contest, delivered us from the tyranny of the Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Bolton. My proper station, as First Captain, was at the head of my own, and afterwards of the Grenadier, Company; but in the absence, or even in the presence, of the two field officers, I was entrusted by my friend and my father with the effective labour of dictating the orders, and exercising the battalion. With the help of an original journal, I could write the history of my bloodless and inglorious campaigns; but as these events have lost much of their importance in my own eyes, they shall be dispatched in a few words.

From Winchester, the first place of assembly, (June 4, 1760,) we were removed, at our own request, for the benefit of a foreign education. By the arbitrary, and often capricious, orders of the War Office, the battalion successively marched to the pleasant and hospitable Blandford (June 17); to Hilsea barracks, a seat of disease and discord (Sept. 1); to Cranbrook in the weald of Kent (Dec. 11); to the sea-coast of Dover (Dec. 27); to Winchester camp (June 25, 1761); to the populous and disorderly town of Devizes (Oct. 23); to Salisbury (Feb. 28, 1762); to our beloved Blandford a second time (March 9); and finally, to the fashionable resort of Southampton (June 2); where the colours were fixed till our final dissolution. (Dec. 23). On the beach at Dover we had exercised in sight of the Gallic shores. But the most splendid and useful scene of our life was a four months' encampment on Winchester Down, under the command of the Earl of Effingham. Our army consisted of the Thirty-Fourth Regiment of Foot [many mergers later now part of The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment (King's, Lancashire, and Border)] and six militia corps. The consciousness of our defects was stimulated by friendly emulation. We improved our time and opportunities in morning and evening field-days; and in the general reviews the South Hampshire were rather a credit than a disgrace to the line. In our subsequent quarters of the Devizes and Blandford, we advanced with a quick step in our military studies; the ballot of the ensuing summer renewed our vigour and youth; and had the militia subsisted another year, we might have contested the prize with the most perfect of our brethren.

The loss of so many busy and idle hours was not compensated by any elegant pleasure; and my temper was insensibly soured by the society of our rustic officers. In every state there exists, however, a balance of good and evil. The habits of a sedentary life were usefully broken by the duties of an active profession: in the healthful exercise of the field I hunted with a battalion, instead of a pack; and at that time I was ready, at any hour of the day or night, to fly from quarters to London, from London to quarters, on the slightest call of private or regimental business. But my principal obligation to the militia, was the making me an Englishman, and a soldier. After my foreign education, with my reserved temper, I should long have continued a stranger in my native country, had I not been shaken in this various scene of new faces and new friends: had not experience forced me to feel the characters of our leading men, the state of parties, the forms of office, and the operation of our civil and military system. In this peaceful service I imbibed the rudiments of the language, and science of tactics, which opened a new field of study and observation. I diligently read, and meditated, the Mémoires militaires [sur les Grecs et les Romains] of Quintus Icilius [pen name of the Prussian historian Karl Gottlieb Guichard], the only writer who has united the merits of a professor and a veteran. The discipline and evolutions of a modern battalion gave me a clearer notion of the phalanx and the legion; and the captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers (the reader may smile) has not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire.

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